LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Something happened in that halftime locker room last Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
Sure, there were words of encouragement from Louisville coach Rick Pitino as well as demands to play the way Louisville was capable of for the next 20 minutes. Senior Peyton Siva made his plea as well.
But these were words. The Cardinals' play over the five halves of basketball since was the action.
And that’s scary for anyone left in this field.
Sure, Louisville can be beaten. The Cardinals lost three consecutive games during Big East play, to Syracuse and at Villanova and Georgetown. They handed Notre Dame multiple lives during a classic five-overtime loss in South Bend, Ind.
But it would take a shutdown by the top-seeded Cardinals, and a patient team that consistently -- and I want to underscore the word consistently here -- makes shots.
Colorado State tried for five minutes. But that was it, as the Rams were swallowed whole by the Cardinals’ pressure and the nearly 90 percent home-court advantage Louisville (31-5) had on Kentucky’s home floor at Rupp Arena.
“I don’t want to put the pressure on Rick and his guys, but they’re special,” Colorado State coach Larry Eustachy said after the 82-56 thrashing in the round of 32. “They need a little luck like everybody does to win it all, but that’s as impressive a team as I’ve been against, certainly.
“I can’t say enough about coach Pitino and how he gets his guys to play for 40 minutes,” Eustachy added. “It’s as impressive as I’ve ever seen.”
The mature, experienced Rams (26-9) were out of sync, committing a season-high 20 turnovers. Once the pressure increased, the eighth seed was in a vise with no release button.
“I would just describe it as chaos,” said Colorado State’s Greg Smith, who had four turnovers. “Some of those guys are just so fast, and you may think that you have an open lane or you may think the pass is coming, and they close it down so quick. They really have each other’s backs as far as their traps and different stuff they throw at different people.”
Louisville turned a double-digit halftime deficit to Syracuse into a 17-point win. The Cards crushed North Carolina A&T by 31.
Louisville’s Chane Behanan said the halftime locker room last Saturday was one of shock.
“You could see the frustration on coach’s face,” said Behanan. “We all work so hard for him. We knew we had to buckle down. I want to see him in the Hall of Fame (Pitino is on the ballot).”
Siva said the Cardinals try not to remember the first half against Syracuse. But they must. That’s exactly how Louisville can be beaten. If the opponent has a hot hand -- like Syracuse’s James Southerland -- and the Cards are passive, they are ripe to be taken down.
And in this field -- where Harvard beats New Mexico and Florida Gulf Coast knocks off Georgetown -- there are no givens.
How do you beat Louisville?
“I can’t tell you that secret,” said Siva. “Then other people will use it.”
But there is one.
“If we don’t come out with effort, we’ll beat ourselves,” said Siva. “We played 35 minutes against Notre Dame and we got beat in overtime. We’re not overconfident. How can we be when we lost three straight? Who are we to be overconfident about anything? We lost a close game to Syracuse when I turned the ball over, and lost a close game against Georgetown when I didn’t have a good game -- and then at Villanova we didn’t make free throws. We’ve got to take care of the ball and make better decisions and make free throws down the stretch.”
Russ Smith was his ridiculous, or Rupp-diculous, self Saturday with 27 points. He and Pitino exchanged plenty of good moments during the game.
They were loving his effort and productivity at both ends of the court.
The one thing you can tell from watching Pitino the past two weeks, in New York and here in Lexington, is how much he absolutely loves coaching this team.
This is not some foreign concept. John Calipari loved dealing with last season’s champion Wildcats at Kentucky. The same is almost always true of title teams and their relationships with their head coaches.
But Pitino is dialed in with this group. The players have bought in completely on how he wants them to play. The practices are intense and don’t have much of a break. The individual workouts have gone from 42 minutes at the beginning of the season to 28 now, according to Pitino. The practices range from 2 hours, 25 minutes to 1:45, with the only break for 20 seconds per correction.
“It’s counter-productive for a well-conditioned team to wear their legs out,” said Pitino.
Pitino said to play the way the Cardinals are handling games right now takes incredible stamina and shape.
He’s not about to anoint this his best team (I’d say the 1996 Kentucky team would take that honor). The talent doesn’t compare.
“It may not be in my top five (on talent),” said Pitino. “But in terms of execution and intensity and will to win, it’s up there. It’s not a who’s-who in the lottery draft. We don’t play for the lottery draft. We play the game for Louisville and move on.”
Louisville has some similar traits to the Maryland teams from 2001 and ’02. They weren’t filled with expected NBA talent. Sure, Steve Blake and Chris Wilcox have lasted in the NBA, but neither one was a lock at the time. The same could be true for Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith. That Maryland team went to the Final Four one year, lost in the semifinals and returned hungry and intact to win it the following season.
Don’t be surprised if that occurs with Louisville.
Coaching this lot has invigorated Pitino like he never thought possible.
“If I can keep recruiting guys like this, I want to coach until 70 and beyond because I’ve had such a blast, and to see guys work that hard inside just fills you up, it really does,” said Pitino. “That’s not easy to do what they do. I don’t think in my best day as an athlete I could have done half of what these guys do in the course of a game. So, it’s really amazing what they do on the court.”